(By Correne Coetzer) During this Arctic Spring, Eric Larsen has completed his third full route expedition from land to the Geographic North Pole (90ºN). His team mate was Ryan Waters and they did it unassisted unsupported; with no resupplies, or dog/wind/car support. The men snowshoed, skied, swam and crawled to the Pole, fighting the eastward drift and large rubble fields.
The ice was bad and it just drained them physically and mentally, Eric says to ExplorersWeb. Worse was the last kilometers when the Arctic through everything against them and the covered the last 3.5nm (6.5km) in 8-9 hours.
This was Eric’s first Polar expedition without resupplies and he says it is exponentially more difficult to travel with all the gear needed rather than getting resupplies along the way. "In fact, the two styles of trips don't really even compare. Apart from being physically easier, having resupplies also allows you a substantial amount of 'wiggle room' to fix mistakes in planning, take rest days, bring in extra food and fuel, dry gear and much more.”
Eric also compares this expedition to the ones in 2006 and 2010 and to climbing Everest, and tells about falling in the Arctic water, his team mate, and what kept him going.
ExplorersWeb: The full route to the North Pole is unique every year as we have ocean ice there. How was the ice conditions similar and different from what you have experiences previously?
Eric Larsen: And that's the beautiful thing about the North Pole / Arctic Ocean - every journey is unique! My first expedition to the North Pole was in May and June of 2006 so it was a bit different during late spring/early summer. Overall however, the ice was significantly different from 2010.
First of all, we had very few leads for most of the expedition and didn't see any seals the entire journey (we saw a lot of seals in 2010). The ice was much more compacted and rough this year as well. All of 83 [degrees North] and into 84 was bad drifts and ice blocks. In 2010, we were on newly frozen leads from Day 1.
Overall, I would say the ice this year was consistently rougher with smaller pans and more snow drifts and we experienced more new snow. I also think that there were more 'big' pressure ridges this year as well as vast areas of consistently pressured ice. In the past, I always felt like the pressure was more defined. This year we seemed to simply get 'stuck' in these massive fields of cracked/pressured ice. I know everyone always says the pressure ridges are huge, but this year, they were definitely bigger/taller than 2010.
From 87 to 89 we also had relatively decent ice - smaller pressure ridges and relatively flat pans but the last 30 miles were horrific. It seemed like the whole Arctic Ocean was breaking up in one day.
This whole expedition is an enormous challenge from beginning to end. What situations/ conditions/ circumstances stand out as most challenging?
Eric: It’s really difficult to pick out just one thing as the most challenging. In traveling unsupported / unassisted, there is a level of severity to the whole endeavor that adds serious consequences to every decision you make.
Of course, that doesn't even factor in the amount of money that is involved in the logistics, which is huge stress as well.
I think each phase of the journey offered up some new challenge for us. Initially, it was heavy sleds, rough ice and snow drifts, then soft sticky snow, then more pressured ice, then the overall time factor...
I do think our last day was probably the most challenging because we were so close but it seemed like everything was stacked against us - all we need to do was cover 3.5 tiny little miles - hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the journey - but it took over eight hours and the Arctic threw everything it had against us: whiteout, wind, leads, thin ice, pressure, negative drift...
You have done your previous Polar expeditions with resupplies and this one not? What dies it take to do it unassisted unsupported? How does it differ - yes, the sled is heavier, but it is not only the weight? What do you have to sacrifice, etc.?
Eric: Good question! This was my third 'complete' land to pole North Pole expedition. The first two were supported with air drops so this was my first unassisted and unsupported expedition.
It is exponentially more difficult to travel with all your gear rather than getting resupplies along the way. In fact, the two styles of trips don't really even compare. Apart from being physically easier, having resupplies also allows you a substantial amount of 'wiggle room' to fix mistakes in planning, take rest days, bring in extra food and fuel, dry gear and much more.
In 2010, I honestly wasn't even that tired at the end of our trip. OK, I was a little tired, but nothing like I feel now. We took 2 and a half rest days that year and I slept a minimum of 8 hours each night.
In traveling without resupplies, you have to have everything dialed from the start - especially in regard to food and fuel. You also have a lot of unknowns to deal with so the margin of safety is very, very small.
Gear-wise, I didn't really sacrifice much of anything. I know exactly what gear I need and I don't bring spares for spares. I think a lot of people get into trouble by brining too much or too little. I relied heavily on my experience - know exactly what will work and making necessary modifications where applicable.
Still, there is a lot of stress knowing that when the fuel is gone, it's gone. Additionally, we didn't have a lot of good 'luck' with the surface conditions so I was constantly worried about our supplies lasting. We took 50 days worth of expedition rations and five days worth of emergency meals. The ice was bad and it just drained us physically and mentally; however, we were still able to change our travel strategy to make miles.
Falling though the ice without a drysuit - tell us what goes through your mind and how does your body react? How easy/difficult could you dry? I mean wet shoes in those temperatures? What was the lowest temperature you recored? Windspeed?
Eric: As bad as falling through the ice is, you generally have a split second to react (which is better than no seconds to react). So as much as it is usually a surprise, the key is to throw your weight back towards where it was safe and crawl out as best you can. That way you can hopefully not make the situation worse.
Unfortunately, we're generally far enough apart from one another that you kind of have to help yourself get out versus relying on your partner.
Falling in, I seem to always think about three things - not loosing my skis, keeping my camera dry and the fuel that we might waste drying gear (we were running low on fuel but luckily were able to conserve a lot the last few weeks in April due to less frost in the tent).
We had one piece of gear that we called our 'sleeper success story'. We bought a coupe of pairs of Outdoor Research Brooks Range overboots, cut the bottoms out and screwed and glued them to our Alfa Extreme boots. The gaitor went nearly to our knee and with leg of our bibs over that, we were able to avoid more severe soakings.
Still, most of the time we simply rub snow on our gear (to soak up the water) and keep going.
Temperature-wise it was warmer than 2010. Of course we started later, but in 2010 it was something like -50[ºC] or -55 at the start. This year, it was -35 on 15th of March at Cape Discovery. So overall temperatures weren't crazy cold - which makes a big difference in everything (gear holding up, calories consumed, sleds sliding better, fuel, etc).
Were there times that you thought of giving up, that you thought you will never reach the Pole?
Eric: I think a better question is what days did I not think about giving up. The expedition is tough and when you are making 1 or 2 miles a day, it's hard to imagine a reality that will get you to the Pole. Right before we passed Yasu [Ogita, the Japanese solo skier], was another tough moment as was the last 30 miles. Honestly, I was never certain that we would make it - even down to the last half mile.
What did you learn about Ryan that you didn't know?
Eric: Ryan is easily the best expedition partner that I've had. He is steady and level headed and is a good balance to my intensity. He has great focus despite all the obstacles - internal and externally. That's not to say that we always agreed on everything, but overall I felt that we had a good dynamic.
As far as what I learned about Ryan, I knew a lot about him already as Ryan is a very straight forward guy. I was definitely impressed with his ability to work through hardship and pain.
What did you learn about yourself on this expedition?
Eric: I learned that my family the most important thing in the world to me. I also learned that I can function relatively well on four and a half hours of sleep a night for nearly two weeks.
You had you little boy, Merritt, at home this time. How did that changed the character of your expedition?
Eric: Being away from Merritt was easily the most difficult thing for me on the entire expedition. Around day 40, I just had to check out of family life as I needed the mental focus and toughness to finish. It's hard to live in two worlds at the same time - especially when one of those worlds is trying to completely break you.
Still, I'm gone on expeditions a lot and staying connected to my family is really important. Needless to say, it adds a little stress to many of the situations as you know you're walking (skiing/swimming) a thin line of safety. Knowing that, by putting myself in danger, I was also putting my family in danger was difficult to say the least.
Still, it also helped me keep focused near the end of the trip. I would tell Ryan (but mostly as a reminder to myself) that we need to be, 'safe, decisive and efficient'.
How does the North Pole, South Pole and Everest compare?
Eric: They are all so different. Expedition-wise, I wasn't doing nearly the decision making on Everest as I was in either the North or South Poles, which changes the level of personal stress substantially. I didn't have to worry about logistics on Everest, either. There's a big difference in being on an expedition and being on an expedition and having to coordinate logistics at the same time.
Even though I was on Everest in the Fall with no other teams (after the Japanese guy left), it was still only 9 or so days of actual climbing on the mountain. The rest was at base camp. I would even regularly hike down to Gorakshep to get a Coke. So really, Everest doesn't compare.
My Antarctic expeditions have been supported so there is a big difference there as well. In Antarctica you basically have two variables - wind and visibility - which makes it much easier than the North (which has many more variables - wind, drift, visibility, pressure, thin ice, open water, humidity, temperature... you get the idea). Camping is easy in Antarctica, too and inside the tent it's HOT.
In my estimation, the full expedition to the North Pole easily ten times harder than Everest or the South Pole.
How did your gear hold? How did you handle the humidity?
Eric: Let’s just say I love my repair kit - that environment just destroys gear. Still, almost everything held up relatively well and we only had minor repairs, but it always seemed to be something - tear in sled cover, hole in mitten, ski, camera tripod, etc... I was really bummed out when my compass dialed cracked - which is the first time that's every happened - but I fixed it and was able to navigate even though it had bubble in it.
You reported about sore bodies? How did your body held up? Any frostbite?
Eric: I feel a little silly saying that my worst injury was a blister on the ball of my foot, but realistically it was my worst injury. I did have some really intense pain in my left knee a few days, but I was careful in how I used it (stepped, etc) and it ended up not really being a problem. I also had a weird pulled muscle in my calf that seemed to be more of an inconvenience than anything.
Sore muscle-wise, I was definitely surprised to wake up with sore muscles every now and again. I thought to myself, 'how, after so many days out here could I be using any new muscles harder than I already have?' But I guess I did! As far as frostbite... I've never had it yet!
How did you kept yourself mentally going?
Eric: I’ve always said that the best way to succeed is by putting yourself in a situation where you don't have another choice. Personally, I was never really sure if we would make it, but I was focused on trying as hard as I could.
Probably the most important factor in keeping mentally strong was setting a series of short term goals. So many things changed from week to week that making a plan for later in the expedition was somewhat futile. (I jokingly told Ryan that our plan was to not have a plan and we would make it up as we went.) Therefore we set smaller objectives; 84, 85, 87 and so on, and reevaluated our plan as we achieved each of those goals.
This serves two purposes. First, it provides small successes to build on. And second, it prevents you becoming so overwhelmed that you want to quit.
Will you do it a fourth time?
Eric: No. Yes? Our expedition was called Last North because I do believe that full unsupported unassisted expeditions will not be possible long into the future. While ice conditions are becoming rougher and more difficult than in the past, I think the other factor preventing people achieving the Pole is simply the logistics window. I wouldn't be surprised if Kenn Borek dramatically shortened their window of operations (or eliminated them altogether) in the very near future.
I have to admit, I really like the challenges of Arctic Ocean travel. It involves a lot of problem solving and as scary as many situations were, I actually felt the most relaxed when the conditions were the worst. Of course on my website, I do have the North Pole and the last degree North Pole listed as something I would guide - so if I get enough clients...
Eric: I am very excited about the TV show that Animal Planet is producing about our adventure, which will air in early 2015. To travel unassisted and get enough footage for a TV show was a lot of work (understatement of the decade), and ate up valuable travel time.
While I would have liked to get to the Pole a few days faster than what we did, the goal of all my expeditions is to connect people to places and help them better understand these environments are and how they are changing. Therefore, telling the story of one of the most difficult expeditions on the planet, to a place that few people really understand and have the broad reach of Animal Planet is a huge success for me and I feel privileged for the opportunity. So... stay tuned :)
Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters departed from Cape Discovery, Ellesmere Island, Canada on March 15, and arrived 53 days later at the Geographic North Pole on March 6. The two Americans were unassisted (no resupplies), and unsupported (no kites/dogs/vehicles) and each pulled a 144 kg / 317 pound sledge. Apart from previously skiing/walking/swimming/crawling/canoeing twice to the Geographic North Pole, Eric has climbed Everest and skied twice from the coast of Antarctica to the Geographic South Pole. In the 2012-13 season he attempted to cycle on a fatbike to the South Pole.
Before the expedition Eric explained about the costs, "Just getting to the starting point on Ellesmere Island is a complicated, and very expensive affair. You see a flight to Cape Discovery or Ward Hunt Island (the traditional 'jumping off points for North Pole expeditions) costs $42,000. That's right you read correctly. Getting picked up at the Pole by the same remote logistics operator, costs over $100,000. It's an expensive endeavor to say the least and one that creates a substantial amount of stress. To make matters worse, the full bill must be paid prior to departure. In the past, it's been a slightly different arrangement and there has only been a requirement to pay a partial sum at the start.”
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